Written by Katy Myers
Billie Holiday was a superstar jazz singer who impacted and influenced millions of people with her voice. She was also a survivor - of racism, sexism, harassment, abuse, and assault.
Holiday, born as Eleanora Fagan on April 7th, 1915, spent her early childhood in Baltimore then moved to New York City with her mother hoping for better job prospects. When she found work cleaning the floors at Alice Dean’s brothel, young Billie also found access to the music of Louis “Pops” Armstrong and blues singer Bessie Smith. It’s no wonder then that Holiday’s melodic choices later in life brought Armstrong to mind for some. (1)
Holiday wrote of her early love of music in her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues: "A Victrola was a big deal in those days, and there weren't any parlors around that had one except Alice's. I spent many a wonderful hour there listening to Pops and Bessie. I remember Pops' recording of 'West End Blues' and how it used to gas me. It was the first time I ever heard anybody sing without using any words."
As a teen in Harlem, having already cemented her love of jazz, Billie began performing whenever she got the chance. The Harlem Renaissance was coming to a close and swing was in. Her unique style, intuitive syncopation, and beguiling stage presence helped Holiday find success relatively quickly. She had a record deal by age eighteen and was performing with some of the biggest names in jazz throughout her twenties. (2)
Holiday performed with Benny Goodman, Teddy Wilson, Count Basie, and Artie Shaw. Perhaps her most notable musical relationship was with tenor saxophonist Lester Young, who toured, wrote, and even sometimes lived with Holiday throughout her career. Young gave her the nickname, “Lady Day,” which stuck. With Lester Young, Holiday performed during her 1937 residency at Barney Josephson’s Cafe Society in Manhattan. Cafe Society was the first club outside of Harlem that fully integrated their audiences, and Holiday used this platform to further her ideas about justice and racial inequality. (2)
During this time, Jim Crow was the official rule of the south. Segregation was enforced and Black men, women, and children were being lynched regularly - murdered by white mobs and hung from trees. Although attempts had been made in the early 1920s to pass a federal anti-lynching bill, southern politicians fought them with filibusters. (3)
In 1937, Billie came across a song titled, “Strange Fruit” written by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish communist schoolteacher in the Bronx, who said “I wrote Strange Fruit because I hate lynching, and I hate injustice, and I hate the people who perpetuate it." (4)
Billie began performing “Strange Fruit” for both Black and white audiences, and her 1939 recording of the song was a huge hit. To give the song the respect it commanded in performance, Billie requested that all bar service be stopped, and all the lights in the venue be dimmed except the lone spotlight on her face.
Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swingin' in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hangin' from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant South
The bulgin' eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burnin' flesh
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather
For the wind to suck
For the sun to rot
For the tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop
Although today the song is widely respected as one of the original protest songs, at the time it was a bold and dangerous move for Holiday to perform it. When Columbia Records refused to record the song, Holiday went to Commodore. When club owners on tour would ask her not to sing it for fear of angering or alienating their white audience members, she sang it anyway.
Many credit the song in discussions of the second attempt at anti-lynching legislation brought in the late 1930s. In the words of Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Eretgun, Strange Fruit served as “a declaration of war… the beginning of the civil rights movement” (4)
Despite being banned on many radio stations, “Strange Fruit” was a huge success commercially, and Billie Holiday’s star continued to rise. But behind all her success, Billie was using drugs to cope. Her childhood was tumultuous and traumatic, and with today’s research linking psychological trauma to drug use, it’s not surprising that she struggled with addiction (5). Holiday’s drug use, along with her unwillingness to stop performing “Strange Fruit,” marked her for investigation and abuse from the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, who followed and harassed her until her tragic death at age 44.
Billie Holiday was an incredibly talented vocalist. She was an innovator and an inspiration to many. Billie was the first singer to take advantage of the new invention of the microphone to create a more intimate vocal style. Frank Sinatra has said that, “It is Billie Holiday… who was and still remains the greatest musical influence on me.”
Billie Holiday was also a Black woman who sacrificed her own personal safety to insist on her freedom of expression and to sing a song that many say began the civil rights movement. Named Time's "song of the century" in 1999, "Strange Fruit" has continued to reach people well into the 21st century.
- Billie Holiday: Emotional Power Through Song, NPR
- Billie’s Story, BillieHoliday.com
- NAACP History: Anti-Lynching Bill, NAACP
- Strange Fruit: The most shocking song of all time? BBC
- Why Trauma Leads to Addiction, Gateway Foundation
- Learn More About the Karson Institute for Race, Peace, and Social Justice, Loyola